I'm refinishing a large handmade Eastern red cedar chest that was built in
the 1920s. The exterior finish, which I *think* was shellac, has darkened
almost to black and become stained and eroded over the years. I used two
applications of a standard paint and varnish remover to get down to the wood
surface, then went over it with denatured alcohol until there was no trace
of color left.
I then attempted to clean up the surface with a #80 open-grit belt on my
sander. The first belt lasted 30 seconds before becoming so badly gummed up
that I had to stop. It was literally plated with what looked like brown wax.
The wood surface was barely touched. I cleaned the belt with a resin stick
and tried again. Same thing. Ditto the third try.
I then switched to a small finishing sander and #60 open grit, thinking that
the weight of the belt sander (ancient 4" Rockwell monster) was heating up
the wood and drawing residual shellac to the surface. The small sander ran
for about a minute before clogging like the belt had. I cleaned the wood
surface again with alcohol, then with acetone, and tried a new sheet of
paper. Same thing happened.
I'm frankly stumped. A very knowledgable acquaintance suggested running a
propane torch or heat gun lightly over the surface to heat up, draw off and
carbonize the remaining shellac, which could then be scraped off before I
tried sanding again. However, he admitted that he had no experience working
with cedar this way.
I thought I would ask this incredible group before going the torch route.
It's a family heirloom and I'm likely to be lynched if I screw it up. Any
Greetings and Salutations.
On Mon, 03 Nov 2003 22:04:21 GMT, "Ernie Jurick"
Ok...that sounds like you managed to get the applied finish
That sounds more like sap or something like that, rather than
When you say "clean up the surface", why should you have to
start with such a coarse belt? I would think that it would have been
smooth enough from the original builder to require nothing more than
a little sanding with a 220 grit or so disk.
No...this is what is known as a "Bad Idea". It is my general
rule to NEVER recommend a process that I have not had some contact
with, although I might say something like "well, I heard that one
What will likely happen is that you will end up with a random
pattern of scortch marks on the wood that STILL will have to be
removed. It is possible to use heat to remove a finish, but, it
can be a tricky thing.
Yea...that can be a problem with things of sentimental value.
I would suggest this course of action. Put down the belt sander.
If it is necessary to smooth surfaces back down, I would STRONGLY
suggest using a scraper. It will do a great job, even on this
challenging wood. I would ALSO recommend that you pick up
a chunk of similar wood from your local lumber yard and experiment
on it for a bit, figuring out how to sharpen the scraper
to an appropriate angle, finding the correct amount of hook,
The big thing is not to mess with it too much. Got to
remember that Cedar is not a very hard wood, so, it is a waste
of time and energy to try and get all the dents out. You will
just lose valuable thickness, and, end up with a smooth
surface that will quickly accumulate a NEW set of dents and
Unless there is serious damage that needs to be
repaired, my usual course of action on a piece like this would
be to simply strip off the old, crappy finish, and redo it
without really doing much to the wood itself.
Sorry for rambling a bit...it has been a bad
The back of the chest isn't finished, and that cleaned up nicely, which is
why I suspect the old finish.
The wood is VERY badly stained. It looks like generations of beer glasses
had been set down on it.
I'm glad I asked. :-) I did a lot of online research on eastern cedar last
night, and you're right on the mark. Heat would have ruined the surface and
I'd be living in the doghouse for months.
I appreciate the pointers, Dave. I have a set of Swedish scrapers and a
burnisher I used to use back when I was making furniture. It never dawned on
me to use them for refinishing.
Greetings and Salutations...
On Tue, 04 Nov 2003 15:08:34 GMT, "Ernie Jurick"
Ah...instead of removing stock, then, how about using a bleach
to get rid of the stains, then, if necessary a light stain to get the
appropriate color back into the wood?
Months? It COULD be one of those things that you hear
about for YEARS (I have a couple of those in my past too..*smile*)
It has been my experience (and the experience of others) that
a good scraper can be a spectacular tool for taking off old finishes,
too...I probably should have thought to mention that earlier. It will
often strip off the old finish right at the wood, without messing up
the surface underneath.
The scrapers worked like a charm, Dave. I even remembered how to use the
burnisher after a few practice tries. :-) They've been packed away for 20+
years. In the same box was a Record bullnose plane and spokeshave I thought
I had lost years ago. Thanks for the help.
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